In my last NBA Finals dispatch, I went on at considerable length about Celtics forward Jayson Tatum. “Dull” was the operative word, and I will stand by that until they put me in the dirt. But, as much as I hated to admit it, I also had to recognize that 6-foot-8 is the frame for an ideal modern NBA player. When your organization’s general manager picks up that phone on draft night and says, “I’ll draft this guy,” the “guy” you, a couch-bound fan who has invested entirely too much emotional capital in a child’s game, are dreaming of is Jayson Tatum. He is the dull rock on which your team will build their church—an uncomplicated superstar and perennial All-Star who will, someday, be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Draymond Green is not the rock. Draymond Green is no one’s idea of a slam-dunk, or the central pillar of even a regular-ass playoff team. When he was entering the league after playing four years at Michigan State, draftniks were mostly concerned with his size and speed. Here is Draymond Green in college: a big forward with passing skills, “limited” athleticism, high IQ. The sort of guy who wears a T-shirt under his jersey:
Yes, he is one of three people to notch multiple triple-doubles in the NCAA tournament. Not big enough for a power forward, not fast enough for a small forward. Long arms, that’s cool, and he seems competitive, but how can a player without extraordinary physical qualities really excel in the NBA? And yet, here he is, playing in his tenth season for the Golden State Warriors, his team up 3-2 in his sixth Finals appearance, a four-time All-Star, and surefire Hall of Famer who will give a fantastically entertaining induction speech—unlike Tatum, whose speech is already putting me to sleep as I speculate about it in print.
Part of the answer lies somewhere at the bottom of DraftExpress’s summation of a 22-year-old Green: “Still, he continues to rebound the ball at an excellent rate, even against top competition as evidenced by his 18-rebound effort against North Carolina’s NBA-caliber frontcourt. His 12.1 rebounds per-40 are a career-high, and at just 6’7, he is grabbing 25% of his team’s total defensive rebounds. His soft hands and nose for the ball help him here, but his aggressiveness, in particular, is on full display on the glass.”
Draymond is small for his projectable NBA role, yes, but he also possesses a genius for space. In school, he applied that genius to the boards, where he could manage to ferret out the ball against even a whale like UNC.
But what scouts didn’t know, couldn’t know, was that his brilliance in space was transferable. He didn’t just understand how a ball came off a rim or how to find a teammate on offense. He was also, somehow, able to repurpose that genius for space into the deeply unsexy art of rotating on defense.
After the NBA legalized zone defense in 2002, a series of mobile big men—Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol, among others—shifted the practice of defense away from one-on-one matchups and toward the practice of eating up space. “Getting your man” was over—cutting off drivers, rotating, switching, icing, was in. Draymond managed to mimic the new defensive ethic with his smaller, less athletic body, making himself into a lethal small-ball forward/center with his gigantic arms, absurd sense of space, and indomitable will to win.
Draymond also has one other quality, one that all the great movers and shakers of our time have: he is an immaculate dickhead who lives deep in the notches of his opponent’s spines.
Observe this sequence from a dead ball near the end of the Warriors’ Game 5 victory over the Celtics. Our man is trying to get the ball out of Tatum’s hands after a stoppage in play. Tatum, after the game, told reporters what happened here: “In the NBA after timeouts, guys try to get shots up. They didn’t want me to shoot the ball. I just said, fuck it. I just took the ball with me to the timeout and I kept the ball the whole time. They didn’t say nothing. They just didn’t want me to shoot the ball.”
Now, Draymond hasn’t had the best series. Age has ruptured his already-non-elite vertical leap, his three-point shot has gone from “mostly useful” to “cringe-inducing,” his capacity for playmaking stuttered by the Celtics’ defensive swarming. He is now the first man to foul out of three separate NBA Finals games in one year. He is still possessed of the genius for space, of course, still shutting down lanes, though there’s no way around it: he’s speeding toward the end. But just look at Tatum’s face after Draymond takes away his precious practice shots and sends him to the bench, gripping onto the ball out of pure spite:
This is the look of a man who has been broken by Draymond’s irritating energy. The game is almost over, his squad is beaten for the night and facing two elimination games against a more experienced crew, and he’s had it. In that postgame interview, he goes out of his way to not give Draymond any credit: “They didn’t want me to shoot the ball.” We all know who this shadowy “they” is, Jayson. There is no conspiracy here. No Warriors’ shadow government stole that practice shot from you. It was Draymond. He’s in your head, man, and everyone can see it.
My friend John and I are low-key obsessed with NBA player numbers. You tell us a player, the type of game they play, and their number, and we can figure out what’s gonna happen real quick. There is no NBA number more loaded than the one Draymond sports: 23. Two divided by three equals .666 or the Number of the Beast, who is none other than Michael Jordan, His Airness.
“This is the look of a man who has been broken by Draymond’s irritating energy.”
When you select “23” you tell the world something about yourself: I have watched Michael Jordan ball and was pretty sure that otherworldly shit was somewhere within my grasp. It’s the number of confidence freaks like Lou Williams and JR Smith—people who go out on the court and play the role of “Michael Jordan,” often very poorly. Sometimes a Man of Destiny will opt to sport 23: LeBron James, Anthony Davis. Kobe Bryant, the wackest NBA player of all time, wore 24, presumably as a gesture toward his being the one after Jordan or whatever. It’s always kind of a bad look, because stacking up to MJ is impossible. The man was from space!
(Jimmy Butler has worn 23, and this is the only acceptable high-scoring superstar to rock Jordan’s number, because his journey to the NBA was so insane and required so much confidence when no one in the world believed in him.)
We have always been… completely befuddled by Draymond’s choice in this matter. 23 usually means, “I am a goddamn force of nature,” and there are few players in the NBA who play within themselves more than Draymond. Elite big-man defense and playmaking are awesome but they’re also not the providence of glory boys. Draymond wearing it is almost like a joke. I mean, listen to him talk about himself before the draft:
He did end up winning those two titles in five years, by the way. But not as Michael Jordan: as a Swiss Army knife-freak; a genius who sees the game on an extra level and decimates his opponents psychologically.
Although that’s a big part of Jordan’s game, too—steel trap approach, insanely rude shit-talker, oppressor of feelings. They’ve both gone to their teammates a little too hard, for god’s sake. He isn’t mimicking the glory of Air Jordan, the space alien who became an international icon. He is instead evoking the grime of Mike, the meanest son of a bitch to ever pick up a ball. The Warriors, a team whose rise to the top was scaled by two aesthetically-pleasing guards whose vibes are Wife Guy Supreme and Beach Lord, didn’t only need his domination of space or his third eye. They also needed a grouchy jerk—a dominating bottom feeder looking to crack the enemy’s skull wide open and feast on their sweet psychic treats.